The Debate we should be having

Delhi, and a large part of India, is gripped with Election fever! The national capital is witnessing the first litmus test of the 'Modi wave' against a vibrant political force. With all due respect, the BJP's successes in other states since May 2014 have been against hapless oppositions who are clamoring to find a political message that resonates with the public. In a political atmosphere where Modi & the BJP have largely usurped the development card, AAP represents an intriguing mix of activism and realpolitik. AAP's early electoral successes were primarily due to Arvind Kejriwal's activist credentials. However when their 49-day government tanked, the party seemed to implode. A string of high-profile desertions and an overreaching attempt in the Lok Sabha elections saw the party largely written off by political observers and the media. However, since then AAP has managed to successfully re-brand itself as a political party that eschews politics - a paradoxical position pulled off in no small measure by Arvind's muffler-framed charms.
With exit polls predicting a strong performance by AAP despite the BJP pulling out the big guns for this election, the media are huffing and puffing with an obscene level of excitement. The Internet, especially Twitter, is clogged with an endless stream of irrelevant quotes and counter-quotes. One really wonders whether most of India really cares if AAP loses or decimates the BJP in this election?

Amidst the ceaseless debates to 'have' debates about the Delhi elections, a small piece of news was conveniently glossed over by most Indian media. Hundreds of children, aged 9-14, working under inhuman conditions were rescued by the local police from a factory in Andhra Pradesh. Considering that India is home to the largest number of child laborers in the world, the news by itself is neither unique nor revolting to an Indian eye. However, the magnitude of the operation and the haunting conditions of these children certainly demands our attention. Sadly, the self-appointed guardians of India's conscience in their Mumbai and Delhi newsrooms seem to disagree. When I tried searching for reports about this event in Indian news sites, all I could find was this utterly shocking compendium of videos showing underage laborers being rescued. It chills my soul that such a catalog exist in my country.

Child Labor is a complex socio-economic issue that risks easy posturing - 'Child labor is a disease that eats at the heart of democracy', 'children are the future of a nation' and so on. Election manifestos typically pay such lip-service to this issue. While such stands are morally correct, they severely underestimate the complexity of the issue. Child labor is not a uni-dimensional problem that the next grand scheme will solve overnight. Since the dawn of independence, our governments have enacted several well-meaning measures to tackle this menace, but it refuses to die away. The cold fact remains that child laborers are a vital cog in the day-to-day functioning of several nationally significant industries such as mining, cottonseed production and textiles. It will not be a stretch to concede that the sudden removal of this workforce will have a non-trivial impact on India's economy; a sombre thought, especially in the background of a vast, and predominantly underemployed youth.

However, despite the apparent neglect by Indian democracy's shining guardians, we have made significant progress in battling this problem. According to recent census figures, from 2001 to 2011, the number of child laborers has reduced by 65% - a laudable effort considering that in the previous decade, the number had actually risen by 11.6%. While it will be difficult to pinpoint any single program as the major reason for this improvement, clearly a nexus of poverty alleviation, literacy campaigns and general economic growth is working to take more children out of the workforce and into our schools.

However, it is vital that we maintain this momentum! The impact of Indian economy's recent downturn on child labor remains to be seen. The attention of the media, especially his highness Arnab Goswami, will go a long way in pressuring the government to proactively anticipate any rise in child labor and combat it. Intense and focused media spotlight by eminent personages such as Barkha Dutt will help bring to light neglected academic & committee reports with innovative solutions on confronting this issue. A culprit that is whetting the appetite for child laborers is PM Modi's darling support base - the Indian middle class. Homes of educated, well-to-do families are demanding cheap and exploitable domestic servants, especially underaged girls. The demand is so high, and the returns so lucrative, that it has led to the growth of a pan-national child trafficking network. Underaged girls are routinely kidnapped from poor homes in Bengal, U.P and Bihar to work in the homes of Lutyen's Delhi. These girls are usually physically and sexually exploited by their kidnappers as well as their employers. Child labor in this case is as much an issue of law and order as it is of poverty and illiteracy. I leave you to wrestle with the fact that every 8 minutes, a child is kidnapped in India, with most of them ending up as prostitutes, domestic servants and captive laborers in factories.

A significant legal challenge in combatting this problem is India's ambiguous child labor acts. For example, the law states that it is illegal to employ children below the age of 14 in hazardous conditions. Does this mean that a 9-year old can be employed in 'non-hazardous' environments such as homes? The law is completely outdated and deserves to be replaced by a more comprehensive one which gives law-enforcement wider reach to fight this issue. In fact, such an amendment indeed exists, but has been pending governmental consideration for years. The eternal rivals, the Congress and the BJP, seem to stand united in this sorrowing truth.

Governance in India is nowadays driven by sensationalism. Delhi had been a viper's nest of sick rapists for decades, but it took a Nirbhaya and the accompanying media sensationalism for our government to overhaul our women's' security laws. I desperately hoped that this haunting story about hundreds of child laborers will serve as a similar catalyst; clearly I was wrong. Perversely, I hope the next disaster proves more TRP-friendly.


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